Sixteen efforts at goal, nine of which were on target, conjures up a certain impression for anyone who was not there to watch the match in which one of the teams produced such stats. Okay, it doesn’t mean the shots were raining in on goal exactly, but it does hint at a pretty busy afternoon for the keeper and defence opposing the attack concerned.
The fact of the matter is though that today’s lunchtime 0-0 draw with Millwall represented ninety minutes of tedium for those present. Millwall supporters could go away from the match content with a handy point in their fight against the drop, but for City fans, it only offered further proof, if any were needed, that our Play Off hopes are floundering because of a series of tepid and flat displays at the ground which was such a hard place for opposing sides to play at for the first two thirds of the campaign.
Forty year old Maik Taylor in the Millwall goal did have some fairly difficult crosses to deal with, but as far as shots or headers to save went, he could have been sixty and been able to deal with what City sent his way. Just for a second or two until you noticed the linesman’s flag disallowing the “goal”, it looked like Aron Gunnarsson had beaten Taylor with a header from a Liam Lawrence free kick and there was also a Joe Mason effort cleared off the line, but, apart from that, all the veteran keeper had to deal with were looped efforts by our goalshy strikers which tended to betray their lack of confidence in front of goal.
It’s now four goalless matches in five at Cardiff City Stadium for a side which, up until the match with Blackpool on 4 February could be relied upon to put on hard working, fully committed, dynamic and, usually, winning performances in front of their own fans. Given the mediocre stuff we’ve become used to over the past two months, it’s easy to forget just how good City were in most of their pre February home matches and I would say that out of the fourteen halves of football we’ve played at home since beating Palace to get to Wembley, only one (the second forty five minutes against Peterborough) matches the quality we showed from August to February.
I mentioned three qualities (“hard working”, “fully committed” and “dynamic” ) City fans came to accept as the norm from their team in home matches, but, sadly, I think we are only getting the commitment now. The desire to work hard is still there I believe, but tired minds and bodies mean that the players are not capable of putting in the sort of shift that they were earlier in the season any more.
This brings us on to the dynamic part and, to an extent, tiredness has played it’s part here as well. However, I would argue that at least some of the lack of dynamism is self inflicted. Much has been made of our lack of pace and I would certainly agree that we have been short of it recently – the thing is though that we haven’t lost any players through injury or transfers out who were doing so well earlier in the season, so this lack of pace was not hurting us too much from August to January.
What has changed though is that, recently at least, Steve McPhail has returned from his latest illness enforced break and, being the sort of player he is, this means a drop in tempo from what we had become used to seeing. Now, I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing because it also brings an element of control that may previously have been lacking, but, put it with the decline in tempo from others and it makes us so much easier to play against – especially when the one player we have brought in who is a first team contender is someone else who tends to lower the tempo of play.
Now, I must say that I thought Liam Lawrence played as well as I’ve seen him in a City shirt today and, although I’m not sure about the Man of the Match nomination he picked up from the match sponsors, I did rate him as one of our best performers -however, at a time when we have been lacking our earlier urgency, we have brought in someone who makes that situation worse!
I’ll nail my colours to the mast and say I wanted Malky Mackay here and I still believe that, overall, he’s done well so far, but we have “blown up” in the last few months of the season just like his Watford team did last year and, to a lesser extent, the year before that. Combine this with the fact that, as I see it anyway, we have included two players in recent games who actually make us a slower team at a time when others are flagging and I think it’s fair to say that our manager has lost much of the goodwill he earned earlier by making some decisions that are hard to comprehend.
City have become so slow and deliberate in their build up play that all sides need to do against us defensively in open play is keep two disciplined banks of four (or five as far the midfield goes) and they know that we are very unlikely to hurt them – we’ll pass the ball from side to side neatly enough in front of them, but it’s all done so slowly that nothing will come of it. Unfortunately, City weren’t even much of a threat from set pieces today either as Peter Whittingham’s dead ball delivery fell some way short of his normal standards
It could be legitimately claimed that the second half was one way traffic. Certainly, apart from a few late chances for Millwall as we left gaps at the back in our efforts to come up with a winner, virtually all of the play was towards their goal, but, to quote Denis Healey the visitors must have felt like they were “being savaged by a dead sheep”!
I’ve been typing this while all of todays other games have been taking place and the way the results have worked out mean that we are still right in the Play Off hunt. When you ask yourself though when is the last time we’ve looked remotely like a side that’s going to finish in the top six (at home in particular) or the team we saw in the first half of the season, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that our promotion hopes are fading with barely a whimper .
* pictures courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/by The other Bob Wilson
It’s strange how the reaction would have been almost exclusively negative if yesterday’s 1-1 draw with Birmingham City had taken place at Cardiff City Stadium and yet, move the match one hundred miles up the road to St. Andrews, and it suddenly becomes that much more impressive. I’m as guilty as anyone of doing this, so I’m not trying to make some clever point here, just illustrating out how much influence the venue of a game is to our reactions and perceptions before, during and after the event.
Even if it was sometimes hard to escape the feeling that we were playing a team which was even more slow and knackered than us, it still has to be said that, when compared to some of the others in the vast collection of 1-1 away draws we’ve gathered this season, this one had a good “feel” to it. After all, it was at the ground of a team above us in the table, our goalkeeper saved a penalty and, for only the third time in our eleven away one pointers this season, we came back to draw after falling behind. Yes, if you go by the usual premise that away draws are something to be welcomed, then there is a reason for a slightly more upbeat feeling about our chances of finishing in the top six.
If we were to draw our last three away games, I’m pretty certain we would achieve that goal if we backed them up with the right results at Cardiff City Stadium. This is where the “but” comes in I’m afraid though, because it seems to me that, recently anyway, we are a team that is not just playing better away, but is also better equipped to win on other side’s grounds – there’s less onus on City to get midfield players into advanced positions than when we are at home. This applies in particular now that Steve McPhail is back in the reckoning. Yesterday offered further evidence that McPhail’s presence (at least until his lack of match fitness catches up with him), leads to more control in midfield if we stick to a 4-5-1 formation, but, it also means that at least one of the midfield five can be virtually ignored when it comes to providing a goal threat.
It’s interesting to note the contrast in attitudes between the rival managers yesterday. In this piece, Malky Mackay shows his satisfaction with the way we played, while Chris Hughton talks of us only having one chance all game. In a way, I think both managers are right – it does take courage to play as City are trying to currently, but, while claiming we only had the one goalscoring chance is exaggerating things somewhat, the Birmingham manager does have something because playing like we are with five “natural” midfielders has to mean that we aren’t going to have many chances to score from open play.
People who were at the match yesterday will, no doubt, put me right if I’ve got the wrong end of the stick here, but listening to the first half especially, I was reminded of the opening phases of the Coventry match last Wednesday where we looked comfortably in control, but lacked a cutting edge. Just as on Wednesday, it fell to Aron Gunnarsson to provide attacking support to the lone striker, but, in my opinion, we are now in a position where we either need to start playing with a front two or we need to have two in our midfield five who are able to think and react like forwards (I’m not sure Gunnarsson does).
It’s perfectly understandable for Malky Mackay to accentuate the positive by pointing out that we have only lost once in our last six games, but he must realise that this is going to lead to others coming back with the response that only one of these games has been won (courtesy of our opponents scoring twice for us). Solidity is all well and good, but, having set out one sequence of results that would see us finish in the Play Off positions above, it’s hard to see us going into the Palace match on the final day with our promotion hopes still alive if we get identical results in our next half a dozen matches as we have got in our last six.
Perhaps having Peter Whittingham (someone who does think and react like a forward) playing in a wider position will lead to him getting forward more (he certainly did two seasons ago), but my own view is that he has become too valuable for us playing infield and, even if this means him playing deeper, I’d prefer to see him being used there. I’ve read on messageboards that Liam Lawrence would be of more use playing wide right and, although I’m not convinced that this is necessarily the case, I would say that putting him there with Whittingham more central seems to be a better idea.
However, this is only skirting around the problem as far as I’m concerned because I feel we would still look like a side that does not have enough forward thinking midfield players if we are going to operate with just one striker. If we are going to persist with 4-5-1, then Joe Mason has to be one of that five in my book – I know this means possible defensive problems for McNaughton or Taylor, but our need to start winning over rides that for me. Another option would be to set up as we did in the League Cup Final – on that score, it was interesting to hear Malky Mackay insist that Kenny Miller was used as a midfield player that day and so, certainly in home matches, why not use McPhail, Whittingham and Gunnarsson or Cowie (my preference would be the former I think), with Mason and Miller playing in support of Gestede? It would still be 4-5-1 and would also give us the option of playing in a more direct style if required, but, with Whittingham and McPhail playing fairly deep, you would like to think that we would still be able to pass it pretty well – there wouldn’t be much attacking width, but when has there been this season?
Alternatively, we could forget all this analytical bollox and just stick Mark Hudson up front because that was some finish by our captain yesterday – I think he’s shown over the past few months that he’s a better player with the ball at his feet than I for one have been prepared to give him credit for in the past.
* pictures courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/by The other Bob Wilson